2017-04-16 12:57:24 UTC
Expert: Death penalty cases different
Jurors' perceptions are key in any criminal case, especially in a capital
murder case, an expert on death-penalty law says.
Add intense pretrial publicity, and judges - as well as defense attorneys and
prosecutors - will do whatever they can to ensure that a defendant gets a fair
trial and that jurors only decide the case and potential penalty based on what
they see and hear in the courtroom - not outside of it, said Michael Benza, an
instructor of law at Case Western Reserve University who is an authority on
Decisions such as whether a defendant should be cuffed or shackled not only in
a courtroom but also outside in a public space all help to ensure that jurors
in a death-penalty case base their decisions solely on what they hear in the
courtroom, Benza said.
"It really is a concern that when jurors see certain types of things, it can
influence their decision-making process," Benza said.
Sheriff Jerry Greene said Judge Maureen Sweeney had instructed that Robert
Seman not be seen wearing handcuffs or other visible restraints in public areas
of the courthouse, in case people in the building may be called to jury duty in
the case or see Seman on television. That was designed to avoid giving people a
negative impression of the defendant before his trial began.
On Monday, Seman was dressed in civilian clothes and was not handcuffed or
shackled as he was walked from the courtroom to an elevator to go to a holding
cell in the courthouse before he jumped to his death.
"If you see a person in the courtroom and he's wearing a prison outfit, you
think he's a bad guy," Benza said.
Typically, even in death- penalty cases, defendants are not wearing street
clothes until jury instruction is actually underway and they are often kept out
of sight of jurors at that time in the courthouse.
Seman could have received the death penalty if convicted in the March 30, 2015,
deaths of Corinne Gump, 10; and her grandparents, William and Judith Schmidt,
in an arson at the home of the Schmidts. But because the case was so highly
publicized, Seman had appeared at all of his hearings since his indictment in
June 2015 in street clothes. Most pretrial hearings, even in death penalty
cases, are not covered by newspapers or television. In the Seman case, the
media covered every hearing.
Benza said there is a tendency for people involved in capital cases to do
things they wouldn't do in any other case because of the high stakes and the
potential for many years of litigation and appeals.
Benza also addressed how publicity, specifically comments on news stories on
social media sites or websites of media outlets, also plays into thinking of
both attorneys and a judge during a trial.
Benza said a story about a case could be neutral but the comments from readers
could be so inflammatory that they could taint a jury pool. Seman's case was
heavily publicized on the internet and generated heavy comments on social media
sites, the majority of those comments against him.
2 attempts to pick a jury locally failed, and Judge Sweeney granted a defense
motion to move the trial. She chose Portage County, where jury orientation was
to begin last Wednesday.
Several court cases address restraining inmates in front of jurors. The main
one is a 1970 case, Illinois v. Allen, where the Supreme Court ruled against a
defendant's motion for a new trial in a robbery case based on the defendant's
argument that he was shackled in front of a jury.
The high court, however, wrote in its opinion: "The presence of restraints
tends to erode the presumption of innocence that our system attaches itself to
every defendant," and that quote is cited in almost all cases where appeals are
made based on defendants who are visibly restrained before jurors.
The high court cited this opinion in a 2004 case, Deck v. Missouri, where a man
sentenced to death appealed his sentence because he argued he was shackled in
front of jurors during the penalty phase of his murder trial. The high court
wrote that having defendants appear without shackles is a practice that dates
back to English common law and they can only be used if a "special need"
In the Deck case, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the defendant's death
sentence and sent the case back to the lower court for resentencing.
(source: Youngstown Vindicator)
ttorney General Files Petition to Arkansas Supreme Court After Lethal Drug
State officials challenged 1 order Saturday and vowed to fight the other.
The rally was attended by actor Johnny Depp and by Damien Echols, who spent
almost 18 years on Arkansas' death row. Arkansas has said this scheduled is
needed because one of its lethal drugs will expire at the end of the month.
The inmates challenged the state's unprecedented plan, arguing the hasty
timetable and the drug used to perform the execution amounted to cruel and
But more recently, capital punishment has been stalled in Arkansas because of
drug shortages and legal challenges.
Legal battles had prevented any executions in the state in the last 12 years.
The attorney general plans to appeal Griffen's order as well. All of the
inmates are men, and all were convicted of capital murder.
The state Supreme Court on Friday granted a stay of execution on 1 of the 7,
and an 8th inmate whom the state planned to execution won an earlier stay.
"No state has ever conducted 8 executions over a 10-day period", he said.
The state appealed U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker's order hours later,
hoping to follow through with its planned executions, with the 1st scheduled
for Monday. The latest ruling from Baker applies to the 8 originally scheduled
to die, plus 1 more man whose execution had not yet been scheduled. Baker,
dealt another blow Saturday.
Baker says the inmates could have legitimate claims that Arkansas' execution
protocol could inflict "severe pain".
Posner sent the letter Thursday to 2 Arkansas officials.
On Saturday morning, the Attorney General's office filed an emergency petition
with the Arkansas Supreme Court asking that Griffen be removed from the case
and his temporary restraining order be lifted.
"It is unfortunate that a US district judge has chosen to side with the
convicted prisoners in one of their many last-minute attempts to delay
justice", Jude Deere, an office spokesman, said.
Executions of multiple inmates are not new to Arkansas.
Other companies also weighed in. The suppliers of the muscle relaxant,
vecuronium bromide, argued that it had been sold to the prison system on the
premise that it would be used for legitimate medical purposes rather than
The company has said it had been reassured the drug would be returned and even
issued a refund, but it never was. The pair of lethal injections that Willett,
the former Texas warden, presided over in 2000 was the last of 10 such
executions over 6 years involving only 4 states: Texas, Arkansas, Illinois and
SC. By Friday night, the company had persuaded Griffen to intervene.
McKesson contends that Arkansas penal authorities purchased the vecuronium
bromide, which provokes muscular paralysis, without warning that it would be
used to put inmates to death. The drug's maker, McKesson Medical Surgical, said
it had been misled by the state.
Griffen wrote that these issues could not be remedied later, while the state
could later obtain a replacement drug.
Absent details about drug sources, death penalty opponents may focus on
questions about the drugs' reliability or how they are administered, based on
flawed executions elsewhere.
The series of legal roadblocks constitute a major setback for Arkansas's
Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, who had pushed for the accelerated
executions as the expiration of the state's supply of midazolam drew near.
"After hearing the evidence. the court is compelled to stay these executions",
The Associated Press explains that "under Arkansas' protocol, midazolam is used
to sedate the inmate, vecuronium bromide then stops the inmate's breathing and
potassium chloride stops the heart".
"When I heard about the conveyor belt of death that the politicians were trying
to set in motion, I knew I couldn't live with myself if I didn't come back and
try to do something", Echols said Friday. Baker had not ruled by Friday
Gov Hutchinson releases statement on federal ruling that blocks scheduled
Governor Hutchinson has released a statement on the federal ruling by Judge
Kristine Baker that blocks Arkansas' scheduled executions and other recent
court rulings regarding the executions.
"When I set the 8 execution dates in accordance with the law and my
responsibilities, I was fully aware that the actions would trigger both the
individual clemency hearings and separate court reviews on varying claims by
the death row inmates. I understand how difficult this is on the victims???
families, and my heart goes out to them as they once again deal with the
continued court review; however, the last minute court reviews are all part of
the difficult process of death penalty cases. I expect both the Supreme Court
of Arkansas and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals to review the decisions
quickly, and I have confidence in the Attorney General and her team to expedite
the reviews. I'll be meeting with the Attorney General and the Arkansas
Department of Correction on Monday to determine next steps," he said.
The federal ruling cited a likely violation of the inmate's Eighth Amendment
and right to due process.
Judd Deere, spokesperson for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, has
confirmed that the state will appeal to the Eighth Circuit and possibly the
Supreme Court. The court battle will likely extend into next week. However, if
either high court rules in favor of the state, the executions could move
forward as early as next week.
A federal case recently stayed the execution of Jason McGehee, who was set to
die before Williams on April 27. Friday the Arkansas Supreme Court granted an
emergency stay for Bruce Ward, who was set to be executed on April 17.
Another hurdle to the executions is a temporary restraining order that Pulaski
County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen issued Friday against the state of
Arkansas, effectively halting the scheduled executions until further notice.
According to court documents, McKesson Medical-Surgical Incorporated filed the
temporary restraining order for an "injuctive relief" and for the state of
Arkansas to return its property, 10 vials of 20mg Vecuronium bromide.
Little Rock Vice Mayor Webb thinks death penalty should be ruled out completely
Amid all the legal wrangling, there are high emotions on both sides of the
death penalty debate.
Friday a rally bought hundreds of Arkansans out to the state capital voicing
their opinion both for and against the death penalty. Saturday one city leader
agreed with the decision by the federal court to halt the executions scheduled
to begin on Monday.
In less than 48 hours eight executions are scheduled to begin. Little Rock Vice
Mayor Kathy Webb is still sticking by her belief to not go through with the
death penalty. This after Federal Judge Kristine Baker blocked Arkansas' plan
to execute 8 inmates by the end of the month, but Webb is saying the death
penalty should be ruled out altogether and not be used in Arkansas.
"I like it when the eyes of the country are on Arkansas for positive reasons,
not something like this," Webb said. "I know that this is something that has
weighed heavily on the governor and it is a tremendous responsibility."
Those for the death penalty like conservative Senator Jason Rapert took to
Twitter soon after the decision by Judge Baker and Judge Griffen. Tweeting,
"Abortions occur regularly at Little Rock #Abortion clinic KILLING innocent
babies...where is the outcry for their life? #arpx"
Another tweet this time from Senator Trent Garner calls for Judge Wendell's
impeachment. Griffin joined protestors Friday by laying in a lawn chair in
front of the governor's mansion.
"I would side with Judge Griffin and Judge Baker who question the
constitutionally of the cruel and unusual punishment and the use of the
particular drug for execution," Webb said.
Now Webb is left hoping a decision will be made that will bring both ease to
the families of the victims and Arkansans.
"While my heart goes out to victim's families of the crimes," Webb said. "I
don't think that taking another's life is a solution to their grief."
Friday's rally grew in size and stature when actor Johnny Depp came and spoke
alongside Damien Echols. Echols walked off Arkansas' death row by taking what's
called an "Alford plea." Depp has been a supporter and friend of Echols for
(source for both: KTHV-TV news)
Outcry after Arkansas judge who stayed executions joins anti-death penalty
rally----Republican lawmakers questioned Judge Wendell Griffen???s impartiality
after he lay bound on a cot following his ruling to halt executions
The judge who on Friday barred Arkansas from executing six prisoners in rapid
succession followed his ruling by attending an anti-death penalty rally, where
he lay down on a cot and bound himself as though he were a condemned man on a
Judge Wendell Griffen's participation in the protest outside the Arkansas
governor's mansion sparked outrage among death penalty supporters, including
Republican lawmakers who described it as judicial misconduct and potential
grounds for Griffen's removal from the bench.
Arkansas attorney general Leslie Rutledge on Saturday asked the state's highest
court to vacate Griffen's ruling and asked for a new judge to be assigned the
Griffen, a Pulaski County circuit judge, ruled against the state because of a
dispute over how the state obtained one of its execution drugs. In an interview
on Saturday, he said he was morally opposed to the death penalty and that his
personal beliefs alone should not disqualify him from taking up certain cases.
"We have never, in my knowledge, been so afraid to admit that people can have
personal beliefs yet can follow the law, even when to follow the law means they
must place their personal feelings aside," he said.
On Friday, Griffen granted a restraining order preventing Arkansas from using
its supply of vecuronium bromide, 1 of 3 drugs it uses in executions, because
the supplier said the state misleadingly obtained the drug.
The ruling came a day before a federal judge halted the executions on different
grounds. The back-to-back decisions upend what had been a plan to execute 8 men
in 11 days, starting on Monday, because the state's supply of 1 of the other
execution drugs expires at the end of the month.
Griffen declined to comment on the demonstration or his ruling, saying he would
address any questions about it at a hearing he scheduled for Tuesday.
Citing the judge's participation in anti-death penalty events before and after
issuing his ruling, attorney general Rutledge wrote on Saturday: "This court
should put a stop to the games being played by a judge who is obviously unable
to preside over this case impartially."
Lawmakers have suggested the move may be grounds for the Arkansas House to
begin impeachment proceedings, saying the demonstration and a blogpost Griffen
wrote on the death penalty this week may amount to "gross misconduct" under the
"He is outside the bounds of normal behavior for most judges probably anywhere
in America," Republican state senator Jason Rapert said.
It is also unclear whether the move would prompt action from the state's
judicial discipline and disability commission. Griffen, who served 12 years on
the state appeals court, has battled with the panel over remarks he made
criticizing George W Bush and the war in Iraq. The panel ultimately dropped its
case against him.
Griffen said he would not consider a person's participation in an
anti-execution event enough, on its own, to warrant disqualifying a juror from
a death penalty case. The question, he said, is whether the juror could set his
or her personal views aside and follow the law.
"We do not require people to come into court with blank slates, either in their
minds or their heart," he said.
(source: The Guardian)
Analysis: Arkansas faces stark reality with execution plans
The topsy-turvy legal wrangling surrounding Arkansas' unprecedented effort to
execute 8 men in 11 days is par for the course in a state where the death
penalty has been in a holding pattern for more than a decade, despite strong
support for capital punishment among voters and elected officials.
Uncertainty still surrounds the unprecedented execution timeline, which was set
to begin Monday night and continue through April 27. If carried out, they would
be the most executions carried out by a state in that timeframe since the U.S.
Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
The plan remains in limbo after a state judge blocked the use of a lethal
injection drug a supplier says was improperly obtained and a federal judge said
inmates could pursue a claim they're at risk of "severe pain."
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson scheduled the executions to occur before the
state's supply of midazolam, a sedative used in the three-drug lethal injection
process, expires at the end of the month. The inmates have challenged the
compressed timeline and the use of the drug, which has been used in flawed
executions in other states. Pharmaceutical companies don't want their drugs
used in the upcoming executions.
The execution dates come nearly four years after the state's previous attorney
general vented that legal challenges and a shortage of drugs used in lethal
injections made it unlikely the state would execute any inmates in the near
"I continue to support the death penalty, but it's time to be frank. Our death
penalty system as it currently exists is completely broken," Dustin McDaniel
told a group of sheriffs from around the state in 2013.
Then-Gov. Mike Beebe that year announced he would have signed legislation
outlawing capital punishment if it ever reached his desk - a prospect that was
unlikely even before Republicans took control of the state Legislature. The
Democratic ex-legislator and former attorney general said his thinking on the
subject had changed after he signed death warrants, though the executions never
"It is an agonizing process whether you are for the death penalty or against
the death penalty," Beebe said.
It's clear that Arkansas supports the death penalty, like many other Southern
states. Polling by the University of Arkansas in 2015 showed that a broad
majority supported executions, and the death penalty was not an issue when
Hutchinson ran for office a year earlier.
In an order Saturday setting aside the executions, U.S. District Judge Kristine
Baker made it clear from the start that she wasn't attempting to decide whether
executions were a proper way to punish Arkansas' worst criminals.
"The death penalty is constitutional," she said, citing a U.S. Supreme Court
decision that authorized the use of the surgical sedative midazolam.
"Competency issues aside, plaintiffs are eligible to receive it. Each of these
... men was convicted by a jury of their peers and then sentenced to death."
Between the Christian observances of Good Friday and Easter, she wrote that
"inherently barbaric punishments" weren't allowed: "burning at the stake,
drawing and quartering, and crucifixion."
And she added that it is only up to Arkansans whether executions will continue.
"The court is mindful of the fact that the state of Arkansas has not executed
an inmate since 2005, despite consistent support for capital punishment from
Arkansawyers and their elected representatives. It is their right to decide
whether the death penalty should be a form of punishment in Arkansas, not the
court's," she said.
What those executions will look like was considered in political circles in
2014, when lawyer David Sterling suggested during his run for the Republican
nomination for attorney general that Arkansas return to electrocutions.
"The electric chair has withstood constant constitutional scrutiny throughout
the country for many, many decades. And so with it being available as a method
of execution, I'm not sure why we're not employing it," Sterling said then.
Leslie Rutledge, who won the GOP nomination and is now defending the state's
execution push as attorney general, disagreed.
"The electric chair is in a museum, and that's where it belongs," Rutledge said
(source: Associated Press)
Sanders calls for end to death penalty
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Saturday called for the U.S. to abolish the
death penalty, as Arkansas seeks to execute 7 inmates before the end of the
"Virtually every Western industrialized country has chosen to end capital
punishment," Sanders tweeted. "The United States should join them."
Sanders tweet came moments after a federal judge issued a preliminary
injunction Saturday to halt Arkansas's plan to execute 7 inmates before the
state's lethal injection drug supply expires at the end of the month.
All 7 executions were scheduled to take place before the end of April with the
use of a lethal injection drug called midazolam.
The lawyers for the inmates challenged the short timeframe of the planned
executions and the use of the drug, which has been linked to instances of
A service courtesy of Washburn University School of Law www.washburnlaw.edu
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